Mike and Nancy talk with Asbury Park artist and entrepreneur Dallas Hlatky. Listening to the interview, one senses the joy in creating and the way in which the city of Asbury Park has been a partner in her journey. The passions that drive artists extend to their environments, so a sense of place is a key to their creative process. Asbury Park’s position as a magnet that draws makers to create is still alive, but for how long?  How will the arts-centric heritage of the city thrive as development continues?   Listen and discover.

Find out more about Dallas and her company Merle Works, here.

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Dallas Hlatky (00:02):
So I think when we look at the future of Asbury Park, we have to think what really creates value. And you have to really look at what, what is the value gonna be at the end and who are the real stakeholders. And just because you’re not a property owner doesn’t mean you’re not a stakeholder in the future of Asbury Park. And I think we’re really at a turning point.

Mike Sodano (00:25):
Welcome to the Arts Rule Podcast, providing insight, analysis and dialogue, highlighting the arts vibrant landscape of small to medium sized cities, guiding you to determine where to visit, work, and live with an arts centric focus. I’m Mike Sed.

Nancy Sabino (00:43):
And I’m Nancy Sabino. When we started Art’s Rule, we wanted to explore what makes a city art centric and the specific ways to encourage art to flourish. Through our interviews with various experts and arts professionals, we’ve been collecting a list of the qualities. Communities need to be considered arts vibrant. While many of our guests are native to Asbury Park, our hometown, others have also offered ideas that create better opportunities for art to thrive.

Mike Sodano (01:13):
To review our findings so far, listen to the past interviews on our website. Of those we believe have a nuanced perspective. We’re gaining a consensus on what it takes to help a city become more receptive to art.

Nancy Sabino (01:28):
Listening to the next guest, Dallas Latke, one senses the joy of creating and the way in which the city of Asbury Park has been a partner in her journey. The passions that drive artists extend to their environments. So a sense of place is a key to their creative process. Dallas has evolved to understand what is important to her in the place she has chosen to follow her own path. Hi. Why don’t you tell us your name and a little bit about your new company.

Dallas Hlatky (02:05):
Sure. So my name is Dallas Lackey and my company’s called Merle Works. I started the company in kind of the end of 2020 and early 2021. I was a pandemic change person and I had sort of been brewing a long held desire to, to do my own thing of some kind. For a long time I started Merl Works and it is a hand dyed goods company. So it’s sort of, there’s, there’s an artistic bent to it. Since we are on the Arts Roll podcast, I make everything myself. I sell a lot of socks to independent boutiques around the world, but I also sell other things. I called it Merl Works, because I don’t know if you’re familiar with the concept of skunkworks.

Mike Sodano (02:57):
That was gonna be my second question. Who’s Merl? So

Dallas Hlatky (02:59):
Merle is my dog. She’s a Merl. A Merl is like a, it’s a, a dog, or I think maybe other animals. Any animal that has sort of a modeled coat, sometimes they have blue eyes. It’s like a genetic combination that results in the way that the coat looks and the way that the eyes look. She does have a beautiful gray and black spotted coat, and my husband said, called her a Merl. And I was like, that’s a cool word. You don’t hear that word very often. And I’m, I’m kind of a collector of words. And then when I saw her coat, I’m like, it’s kind of looks like a, like tie dye. It’s like got this kind of speckled look to it. And the concept of skunk works is something, I think it started at Lockheed Martin, uh, during World War ii, but it, it’s like an offshoot ex radical innovation division in Yeah,

Mike Sodano (03:51):
They’re usually like, put somewhere, right? It’s

Dallas Hlatky (03:54):
Like, and you don’t have to follow any rules and you don’t have to worry about profit. You just have to create something that hasn’t been done before and solve a big problem. So anyways, I put the two things together and that was really the spirit of the company was like, I don’t know where this is going. I don’t know if this is really what I’m doing, but I am gonna just keep experimenting and pursue joy and, and and magic and see what happens. And so now two years later, I’m doing it.

Mike Sodano (04:23):
Well, it’s very much like arts rule. Uh, everyone asked us, especially after the movie theater closed, asked us, so what the hell is this arts rule thing? Is it a business? Is it a a something that we should pay attention to? And we said, well, we’d love you to pay attention to it, but we don’t know what it is yet. We don’t know where it’s going. We just knew that there was an issue in Asbury Park of what makes an arts vibrant city. I mean, is Asbury Park really arts vibrant or is it, is it just playing to its press? So during Covid we said, well, maybe we should look into that because we know so many arts people, right?

Dallas Hlatky (05:11):
I think that we have a fascination in America with pursuing profit and finding gold and striking it rich. And it kind of kills us <laugh> slowly, I’ll speak for myself and, and I think for some of us, maybe we have sort of a more of an artistic spirit or curiosity. Maybe the pandemic allowed us to just take a moment and reconnect with what really lights us up. And if we had all the time in the world and we couldn’t go get a job, what would we do with our time? And then when you look at, you’re only alive for a certain amount of time, you think, well, why wouldn’t I just really try to do that? You know? So I I Well,

Mike Sodano (05:52):
There’s an issue of there’s an issue of living. There

Dallas Hlatky (05:55):
Is, there is. But I think, I think, you know, especially where we do live in Monmouth County, we’re surrounded by an incredible amount of wealth. And so you have to take a step back and go, do I really need all of this? I think being like a happy, fulfilled parent is also really important. So you have to, you know, you have to balance it out and you’re always thinking about something, whether you know it or not. So you might as well pick your project. Right? That’s

Mike Sodano (06:22):
True. Yeah. Yeah. And I love the idea of socks. They’re

Dallas Hlatky (06:25):
Very utilitarian, <laugh> you. If you just have to get dressed and put socks on in the morning, they should just put a little smile on your face, you know? That’s what’s wrong with that. And that slack comes with a little collage poem message. So there’s, I always have had, you know, I have a background. I used to work in greeting cards for a decade and I was the editor and I researched quotes and I licensed things. It was really quotable cards. It was a really great company. You worked

Mike Sodano (06:50):
At Quotable Cards? I did.

Dallas Hlatky (06:52):

Mike Sodano (06:52):
Did. Oh my god, 11

Dallas Hlatky (06:53):

Mike Sodano (06:54):
We were in a store and one of the shops had these great cards to send to people. Yeah, I took pictures of the back of them because I said, these are great. The quotable cards, I have to look them up.

Dallas Hlatky (07:07):
The company is based right near NYU and soho. And I was in college when nine 11, September 11th happened in 2001. My dorm was right on, right above 14th Street, and the whole city was shut down below 14th Street. So we had people like staying with us cuz they couldn’t get to their dorms. And after about five or six days of drinking and arguing about CNN and war and whatever, with my, with my roommates and my friends, I was like, I need to do something or else my life’s gonna go down the two, I can’t, I gotta get outta here. And so I went into my journal and I pulled out a quotable card and I turned over the back of it and it said six 11 Broadway. Oh, close. New York. New York, really? And I, it had an email on it and I sent them an email and I said, hi, do you need help? I will take out your garbage. I love what you do. And I’m right around the corner and they were like, we do actually need somebody. And then I was there for 11 years <laugh>. So I didn’t just take out the garbage, but that is where I started.

Nancy Sabino (08:12):
So you’re working now on a number of items, socks just happened to be your baseline of what you’re

Dallas Hlatky (08:19):
Doing? Yeah, they’re kind of my best, best seller. My biggest hook.

Nancy Sabino (08:22):
And what else are you?

Dallas Hlatky (08:24):
Oh, I do, um, bags, hats like tabletop items, napkins, tea towels, I do, you know, sweatsuits and things like that. The wholesale line has is really my bread and butter. So those, those types of socks and tabletop items and hats that you could sell at a fashion boutique or a gift boutique or a stationary store that has a little tape. You know, I’m in Interwoven and Asbury Park and Forge and Red Bank and all different kinds of really great shops, like I said, around the country. And even in Europe, Corsica, I’m in a little store called Ferries and Pirates and Corsica, which I think is endlessly just amusing to me and makes me so happy. From

Mike Sodano (09:10):
Asbury Park to Corsi.

Dallas Hlatky (09:11):
Exactly. And who could have predicted. But, you know, shop owners are really wonderful, entrepreneurial, artistic spirits in and of themselves.

Nancy Sabino (09:23):
Talk about your studio space.

Dallas Hlatky (09:25):
I’m on the second floor of the Stu Baker building, which is about a hundred years old, I think. I don’t know exactly when it was built. And it is very rough, as you know, from your visit. So I have about, uh, a thousand or 1200 square feet and it’s really gorgeous in a really rundown, dilapidated kind of way. It really is. I really love it. And it’s right next to the train tracks. I hear the train rumbling by like, every hour on the hour. It’s dusty and cracked and the windows don’t close all the way, but it’s perfect. And it really suits my needs because I do kind of make a mess in what I do. It’s wet and there’s dye everywhere. Yeah, I couldn’t really be in an office space. I I just sort of need a, a rough light industrial space.

Mike Sodano (10:11):
And light industrial is tough to come by now.

Dallas Hlatky (10:14):
It is. It’s in the last wave of undeveloped buildings in Asbury that’s still standing. You

Nancy Sabino (10:20):
Could have done this anywhere. Why Asbury? Why Asbury Park and why did Asbury appeal to you?

Dallas Hlatky (10:25):
Well, I love Asbury. I worked previously for the Smith Restaurant Group in Asbury. So I have been in and about Asbury professionally for the past 10 years or so, and know a lot of the people and have friends with other people who have businesses or do work here. And before that, back in the late nineties, my one of my brothers started working, well actually, Jim, who’s an architect, had a little office in the old gas building. And then my other brother started working for a company next door to him. Like I said, you know, you just find your life. You just talk to people, you stay open and, and you make connections. And I would take the elevator up to the eighth floor and you’d just look out at the ocean and be like, this is amazing. And nobody knows what is going on here. It was a secret. And then he would tell people, oh, I work in Asbury. And they’d be like, what? What do you do? And you know, in 1997 that was sort of like a radical thing to be a business in downtown Asbury. So I think I’ve always liked the, the sort of rundown nature of it. And there is some, the, the, the architecture, the history.

Nancy Sabino (11:42):
So if you’re gonna be from somewhere on the Jersey Shore, as I always said, you might as well be from Asbury Park because it has this perception. And that’s kind of where we came about, you know, the art centricity, right? It’s got a perception of being far bigger than it actually is, right? And it takes a long time to gain or lose perception, uh, reputation kind of thing. So where are we? Are we on the upswing or are we on the downswing? And that’s what we’re trying to understand in terms of how does art make a city well known? And, and Asbury has that kind of already reputation, right? That you can use and, and manifest for yourself. Um, what does it take as an artist for you to feel comfortable here and for other artists to work here? Why is is art important for you as a medium to express yourself now?

Dallas Hlatky (12:41):
I think that I’ve been reflecting on this lately. I think that when you’re called or driven to make art or to create things, it’s like you just have something inside of you that you wanna share and you wanna be seen and you wanna be heard and you wanna connect with other human beings. And then when I am looking at art or making art or connecting with other people over something like that, it makes me think of all of the good things about human beings and this beauty that we can create and share and the ideas that it represents and the connections that it creates. And it just reaffirms a joy of being alive that I have found to be absolutely crucial to getting up and going every day since March 16th, 2020 when, you know, we had to like lay off 600 people, including myself, shut our doors, go home and just wonder what the heck was gonna happen. And in the space of not knowing or being afraid or being deeply saddened, I think like art was the only thing. Art and community were the only things that saved me.

Mike Sodano (14:07):
In your opinion, what do you think makes

Speaker 4 (14:11):
Asbury Park Arts vibrant?

Dallas Hlatky (14:17):
Well, I think that the fact that it is a little tiny city is huge because I think

Dallas Hlatky (14:30):
For me, what I like about a place, I love cities. I don’t live in a city. I used to live in a city and I miss it. I miss being with people, but not being with people. Like, I need a little bit of energy and I need a little bit of juice going on. So I think the fact that Asbury has the bones of a city, like there were no malls, and there’s just a reason to be out and around. I think that’s important. And I think the architecture and just the sense of place, the history. Every time I walk, you know, on the boardwalk and I see these beautiful old carcasses of buildings, I just go, I hope these buildings aren’t gonna fall down. Because if we would really lose something, they’re so beautiful and unique and cinematic that you just feel important being around them.

Dallas Hlatky (15:25):
I do, you know, I mean, I, I don’t feel important, but it makes me feel like I could be something, I could be of value people. Well, I, I have on my tags hand dyed in Asbury Park, not Asbury Park, New Jersey, not Asbury Park, New Jersey, usa you know, I sell my socks in Germany and Corsica, like I said before, Italy, California, Maine, Texas. It’s a little tiny place that has a much bigger reputation. And, um, and it makes you feel like you could, you could, you could be Bruce Springsteen, <laugh>, you know, you could make it outta here and you could stay, but your work could make it out of here. Do you

Nancy Sabino (16:05):
Think being an art business gives you what you need in terms of being both the artist and the entrepreneur?

Dallas Hlatky (16:14):
I do. I think it’s a platform. I think I’ve, Merle works as a platform for me and the freedom of entrepreneurship is it’s, you’re the boss, it’s whatever you say it is. So if I decided I wanted to create, you know, I make these, um, tea towels, which is really, it’s just a cotton square, right? So I call them happy accidents because I make them in the process of making everything else. So they’re completely made by happenstance and they mop up all of the color in the dye from the other things. It’s like an artist’s, you know, drop cloth, how it has all the paint splatter on it. I always think those things are so magical and special and they’re like my favorite thing that I make. And for me it’s like a piece of art.

Nancy Sabino (17:04):
If you could wave your magic wand over Asbury Park and make it more conducive for you, I mean, it sounds like it’s what you need now a lot, but how would you see it being more conducive to maybe other artists coming in to share space with you?

Dallas Hlatky (17:22):
Well, the rents are not conducive to artists living or working. I think studio space feels like a total luxury to artists, but just to even have the physical space to create physical art, I think is so important. There’s just a huge real estate boom that is, I think, anti-human. It’s very corporate and Asbury Park has all this cache and it’s at the beach and all the things we love about it make it extremely, you know, mouthwatering for corporate real estate moguls and Airbnbs and all that kind of stuff, and condominium developments and you know, knocking down old buildings and building growth new whatever, you know, and I know that that’s part of the progress of a, of a town and, and that’s just the cycles of everything. And I think Asbury has done a pretty good job of preserving a lot of its old landmark buildings. Um, but it’s concerning. It’s definitely concerning.

Nancy Sabino (18:28):
We are looking at it as art, as an economic engine for any city to say, Hey, we want more art because art’s good for the city. It’s good for bringing in tourism, it’s good for getting our our name out there and it’s good for the artist if you’re identifying with Asbury Park. So how do we make more artists wanna come here? If we don’t have housing for them, the city might be able to do other things. So we’re looking at ways that other cities have promoted art in a way that brings people in. So I

Dallas Hlatky (19:03):
Think when we look at the future of Asbury Park, we have to think what really creates value. And you have to really look at what, what is the value gonna be at the end and who are the real stakeholders? And just because you’re not a property owner doesn’t mean you’re not a stakeholder in the future of Asbury Park. And I think we’re really at a turning point.

Mike Sodano (19:22):
It always comes around to what is the vision of this city? Okay, what is the vision of the people who are running the city to tell us, okay, well five years from now we expect this, 10 years from now, we expect that. Because if you’re running the city, I think all you’re doing is putting out fires every day. Yeah,

Dallas Hlatky (19:45):
Yeah. I think what you’re doing is really important because I think there’s a lot of people who are attracted to Asbury now who don’t even know why. They don’t understand what made it a place that they went, Ooh, I wanna go out in Asbury. Ooh, I wanted to go in that fancy hotel in Asbury Park. Cuz there’s a lot of places you could go that are on the beach, and there’s a lot of places now that have fine restaurants and venues and all that kind of thing, but they don’t have that it factor that Asbury has. And that was created by this long pedigree of artists. You know, again, I go back to the architecture, like it just has the bones of a real place with real import where people come to do real things. And that’s what makes it a hot, cool place to live for. Like kids moving down from Hoboken or wherever they’re coming from, and without even the awareness that, that they’re, they’re attracted to this legacy of the arts, it will absolutely go away. I think just creating an awareness and really putting a stake in the ground to say like, this is an arts city. This is a place where it is important and we need to, to actively work to keep it that way. If somebody’s not fighting that fight, then it’s, it’s really gonna go away very much quicker than even it is now.

Speaker 5 (21:19):
Dallas, it’s been a

Dallas Hlatky (21:20):
Pleasure. Oh, tha I could talk to you guys all day

Nancy Sabino (21:27):
And that’s how arts ruled for this time. The Arts Rule Podcast is produced, directed, and edited by Mike Sed and Nancy Sabino for arts rule.com. If you believe arts rule in your city or town, nominate it on our website and we’ll consider taking a look. If you like our podcast, please follow us on Instagram and sign up for our newsletter@artsrule.com. Until next time, remember when all else fails, arts rule. Thanks for listening.